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Empowering clergy and other church leaders to help care for congregants’ mental health

Webinar by Synod of the Covenant and Science for the Church looks at what’s working in Michigan and Ohio

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ron Smith via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Wrapping up their three-part series last week on Mental Health, Science and the Church, the Synod of the Covenant and its partner, Science for the Church, offered an hour-long conversation on churches and church leaders who are offering mental health services to congregants and to their communities. Watch the webinar here.

The panelists gathered by the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, Synod of the Covenant executive, and the Rev. Drew Rick-Miller, project co-director for Science for the Church, were:

  • Dr. Addie Weaver, Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan.
  • Dr. Ikeshia Smith, a clinical psychologist in Canton, Ohio.
  • Susan Jennings, minister for pastoral care and mission at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Weaver’s presentation focused on Raising Our Spirits Together, a clergy and science partnership designed to increase access to treatment for depression in rural Michigan.

Dr. Addie Weaver

“Michigan is a pretty rural state, where clergy are serving as de facto mental health providers already,” Weaver said. Together with colleagues, Weaver talked to clergy in the southeastern part of the state “about how we might be able to collaborate, bringing together mental health intervention, science, clergy knowledge and expertise, the visual and performing arts and technology” to create a program “that would support clergy in meeting the needs of their congregants and their communities in a way that would not be a significant burden,” Weaver said.

Raising Our Spirits Together integrates cognitive behavioral therapy “with elements clergy already are doing to support folks,” including praying, active listening, engaging congregants in church activities, and helping them focus on “the positive, using Scripture to lift folks up,” Weaver said.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, “We want to help people be able to understand the importance of taking action and doing things even when you don’t feel like it,” Weaver said. “Clergy said, ‘We do that a lot when we talk to people with depression. We invite them to come to fellowship hall on Sunday nights for Bible study. We invite them to come to Wednesday night groups when we’re writing cards to our congregants who are in the hospital or nursing home care.’”

“There are nice ways to build a program that emphasize the strengths of mental health treatments,” Weaver said. “We always have a Scripture that connects, and time for prayer requests.”

The partnership works for many reasons, according to Weaver. “Clergy get in a really authentic way the fact that their congregants are suffering,” Weaver said. Church members and friends “have unmet mental health needs, especially in the rural context. There are a lot of barriers people face in order to access care,” including the shortage of providers, especially in rural areas. In addition, “many people are much more comfortable seeking help from clergy, family or friends.”

Dr. Ikeshia Smith

Smith is part of Mind Your Business, an organization founded in November 2019 by Minister Marquez Johnson. “He realized a lot of people in churches were talking to their pastor about things the pastor was not equipped to handle,” Smith said. “His vision was to help leaders help people cope with everyday stress. We are there to be a support to them.” A tenet of Mind Your Business is “It’s OK not to be OK.”

Up to 10 people usually show up for sessions, and sometimes the crowd swells to about two dozen. Mind Your Business seeks out mental health providers in the communities it serves and operates The Hub, which helps people with utility bills and food.

One of the biggest impacts has been on people suffering grief and loss, Smith said. “You’d be surprised how many individuals are carrying around something very, very heavy,” Smith said.

Two months ago, Mind Your Business helped 20 pastors complete a course on mental health first aid training “to understand the symptoms that may be occurring,” Smith said. That helps them tell congregants, “Here’s what I can do while we’re connecting you with a mental health provider.”

Susan Jennings

Jennings leads the Mental Health Referral Panel at Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has published a booklet helpful to Grand Rapids residents. Since the panel’s founding in 2015, 180 individuals and couples have been served, “and there has been increased education and awareness through adult education and faith formation programs,” Jennings said. “Staff members use the panel. They are paying attention to their mental health needs. We have 22 staff, and six have used the panel, myself included. We have to take care of ourselves to take care of others.”

Asked by Rick-Miller to name the one thing they wish clergy knew about providing mental health care, Smith said, “While prayer can be useful in alleviating symptoms, so is therapy and medication. In our community we are told to pray, but there are other tools out there.”

“I have told pastors that modeling is important,” Smith said. In churches where the pastor is providing mental health support, “I wonder how that would change the view of the congregation.”

“You are making a difference for people,” Weaver said. “Oftentimes you are that trusted person who can open up that conversation. You may also recognize this person needs more than that we can do here and perhaps provide that warm handoff to additional services when needed.”

“I encourage all of us to continue the conversation,” Jennings said. “Admitting you need help helps people feel they’re not so isolated.”

The Rev. Drew Rick-Miller

Wrapping up the webinar, Rick-Miller said he’s learned this through his work engaging science and the church: Scientists are not scary.

“Many scientists would really like to bring skills and knowledge to the service of the church. Don’t be afraid to ask,” Rick-Miller said. “See what they can do to help you meet the needs in your church and in your community.”

“We all share the goal of helping people flourish,” Rick-Miller said, “and right now, mental health is a real challenge for us.”

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